Hawaii’s Labor Issues

Help Wanted Sign

By: Peter Van Buren

Tourists are complaining they cannot get into local restaurants. Owner’s counter they cannot find people to cook and wait tables due to a local labor shortage. Has Hawaii run out of workers? I decided to find out.

Does Age and Racism Play a Part in Hiring in Hawaii?

The results of my unscientific job search suggest there is more a shortage of aloha than labor. Not a single application where my over-60-years old age was clear got a call back. Almost all my applications were ghosted, meaning I never heard anything back. I learned from employers since Hawaii now requires people receiving unemployment to apply to three jobs a week, they are flooded with inquiries and have given up responding to the ones they think are not serious, whatever criteria that involves. Maybe not the best strategy if you need help.

For the jobs where I was interviewed, here is what I found.

No one cares too much about equal opportunity. I was told tourists expect to see a “local boy” in a role, not a white guy like me. I fielded lots of probably illegal questions related to my age, as well as a large scoop of techno-microaggressions about whether I had a cellphone or could enter drink orders into a computer. Some ads openly asked for a woman server, or an attractive female assistant. One didn’t mention gender in offering a job called “Beach Babe,” but the ad pictured a woman who made Hooter’s waitresses seem underinflated.

Many of the jobs bordered on exploitative if not borderline criminal; few made any effort to make the job attractive.

One, selling timeshares, had a hyper-complex commission system such that I could actual close a sale and make no money. It was hard to tell if I would be an employee, or just another mark. A doggy day care claimed I would get tips and so would be paid sub-minimum. Another would have required my first hour’s wages daily for paid parking (the bus round trip would still have cost half an hour’s wages.) A customer service job required me to buy a logoed T-shirt for $15 and a $20 battery-powered old-timey lantern to fit their theming. Having to pay to work was a new thing.

A job at a tourist shooting range wanted two Asian languages, had eight hour shifts with no scheduled break, and required me to pick up lead fragments. Another tour guide offer was minimum wage, but only half paid monthly. The other half was withheld for three months pending a manager’s decision it was deserved as a “bonus.” Unclear if any of this was legal, but what are you going to do, call HPD?

Some of the least attractive places to work seemed to be owner-run restaurants. The expectation was that for low wages I would work like the entrepreneur himself, putting in the sweat equity. One owner complained about employees who whined over missing breaks or not being paid when closing ran late – hey, it was only 15 minutes off the clock. He wanted me to subsidize his business with my free labor.

To him hard work represented unlimited potential profit, without realizing he structured my job to specifically not include any chance for a raise or advancement. There was no reason to do a good job today, and less to be better tomorrow. You cannot work “harder” because your salary is capped, and all the jobs are broken into little pieces anyone could do anyway. The goal was to work just enough not to get fired. The reward was not having to apply for a new job at the burger hut across the street. I am sure the owner complains about how hard it is to find workers.

There were also some nice people, polite, with a what ya-gonna do attitude. But the difference between the overseer who beat his charges with pleasure and the one who was just doing his job is slight.

The minimum wage allows employers of the under-economy to conspire to pay the same wage. If they fixed prices this way, it would be illegal. Employers understand how little choice workers have and seem determined to make their job offering more terrible than the other guy. They certainly showed no interest in how employees might affect their bottom line. While I was asked to prove my vaccination status, not a single person asked me to prove any claimed skills. The most common question if sometimes the only question was can you work Saturdays?

It is hard to put into words how useless you feel in this process. Your potential employer seems to hold you in contempt, if not see you as simply a john to be ripped off under the guise of hiring you. They understand and expect to be allowed to exploit labor, backed by the full faith and credit of government holding down wages.

The effect of all this is showing. Visitor satisfaction in Hawaii is trending downward, dropping from 85% who would rate their visit as excellent pre-COVID to 76% in the June 2021. Limited capacity at restaurants and attractions was the biggest concern at 30%. Another 17% cited Hawaii’s never-ending COVID restrictions. The percentage of travelers who are “very likely ” to recommend Hawaii as a place to visit also dropped, from 86% in the December 2020 to 64% in the June study.

It is only going to get worse. Imagine the tourist in September, when the Federal supplement runs out and everyone must find work, measuring his fun knowing the locals dancing at his luau are forced to be there out of hunger.